The savvy CLO probably has come up with a strategy or three to teach learners how to be innovative and to encourage the generation and application of innovative ideas, particularly with regard to building diverse project teams. Frans Johansson, author of “The Medici Effect: What Elephants & Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation” might have one or two other ideas that bear consideration.
By promoting what Johansson calls “an intersection of disciplines,” chief learning officers can enable the members of their workforce to exploit their diversity of experience, culture, race, viewpoint, etc., for the benefit of the organization.
“Take a company like Frito-Lay,” Johansson said. “They had different product lines, including snack products, and they asked various affinity groups and networking groups that formed inside the company, ‘Can you look at these products, and can you combine the products that we have with something in your background to come up with something different?’ The Hispanic group there came up with the guacamole chip, which didn’t make much sense initially because you use the chip to scoop up guacamole. But they tried it, and they made something like $100 million in the first year. Now they use this specifically as a process to drive a generation of new ideas.”
Johansson said the challenge many learning executives continually face is validating the need for organizational diversity and assisting their company in finding ways to make that happen.
“For the chief learning officer, it’s about doing those two things. That way they can enable innovation,” Johansson said. “Most companies today have some diversity. I would argue that many have far too little of it, but they do have some. I have not yet met a company that has leveraged all of that.”
In order to encourage diversity, an organization has to undertake some strategic plans that either include diversity and inclusion in recruiting efforts, or on a more tactical level, exploit what organizational diversity exists during the creation of learning programs, content-building exercises, etc.
Johansson said the workshop, or a similar learning delivery outlet, is a great way to leverage diversity.
“There’s a number of specific tactics one can use, but in the workshop, you can look at this from different levels,” he said. “You can look at this from an individual level — what should an individual employee do? Or what can the CLO do? Encouraging individual employees in the company to reach beyond their own field or culture or industry is probably the most important piece of this.
“That is very hard to do unless you actually show the benefits of them doing it. In other words, telling people this is a good idea is not going to be enough. That’s where a workshop becomes very powerful because you can actually do it live and see it happen. Then, assuming managers are able to follow up, you can have something. It’s up to the managers (or learning and development executives), how they can empower and inspire the ones they’re managing.”
For instance, when learning occurs in a team environment, the CLO can take advantage of individual differences, as well as diverse groups within a company.
“Companies have all kinds of diverse groups — I mentioned affinity groups in the Frito-Lay example,” Johansson said. “They have a women’s group, they have a Hispanic group, they have an African-American group, and these are huge sources of innovation if they choose to use them. Now they’re doing that. They can go back into these groups and tap them for other ideas that would be either applicable to those markets or not at all, just other ideas period. Then you have outside influences. A learning officer can say, ‘Look, we want to encourage you to reach out, read magazines you don’t usually read, go to other sources of information you don’t usually go to but also talk to, meet up with and connect with people in different industries.’”
Essentially, the chief learning officer must encourage staff members to go outside their boundaries into different fields and make connections that might not be so obvious but might elicit usable solutions.
“The important piece to make this work is to allow people to experiment,” Johansson said. “That involves failure. It’s so easy for an executive to say, ‘Oh, we allow failure of all kinds,’ but then they never share a failure of their own. The easiest way for an executive to encourage experimentation is to talk about some of the times they did things that didn’t work out.
“If you want to leverage diversity, you have to have people look at different groups within the company — it could be a business unit or a different demographic group — then try to connect what you’re working on with those groups. You can do this at an individual level, or you can look outside the company. But in all of those cases, some of the ideas you come up with are new, and you don’t know if they’re going to work or not.”
Johansson also said CLOs might want to execute a similar strategy for their own professional and personal development.
“I would very much encourage them to look outside of their field, look at what are other people doing,” he said. “How does the chief marketing officer do what they do, or how does the head of R&D do what they do? How does somebody outside of this specific industry, or even another country, work? That’s the low-hanging fruit, all three of those things, and they can lead to remarkable discoveries. It works. Just starting to do those three things will, virtually guaranteed, at least open you up to new ideas. Now, whether you’re willing to explore those ideas or not in how to do your job is, of course, a different story, but if you want to break new ground and do something innovative, it’s incumbent. In fact, it’s necessary. The whole notion of constantly referencing each other and looking at what chief learning officers are doing in company after company and benchmarking is, in my opinion, something that will not make you break out. What will make you break out is trying to connect what it is that you do as a chief learning officer with what is happening in another field, another industry, another culture or another discipline.”Filed under: Leadership Development